Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 25, 2010)
Sometimes it’s not best to give the people what they want, a point that is proved succinctly in Rocky II. (Watch out - potential spoilers ahead!) Oh, it’s not like the original 1976 Rocky lacked crowd-pleasing elements. In fact, its rousing lack of cynicism may have contributed mightily to its success over the year’s more dour and hard-bitten releases.
Rocky grossed a ton of money, and it also won out at the Oscars, where it topped strong contenders like Network, Taxi Driver and All the President’s Men
Nonetheless, one aspect of the movie stuck in some people’s craws: Rocky loses the big fight. Many people - myself included - think the current ending is absolutely appropriate, as it fully supports the old contention that it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game. Rocky’s tough stance during this defeat was something of a moral victory as it showed how the little guy can come out okay after all.
Still, although the ending made perfect sense within the film’s context, some folks were disappointed that Rocky didn’t emerge totally victorious. These are the same people who probably feel that 1979’s Rocky II is the better movie of the pair. In fact, it’s vastly inferior to the original, but since it delivers the desired happy finale.
Some have accused RII of being a virtual remake of the original, and those comments aren’t too far off base, though there obviously are quite a few differences. Nonetheless, the sequel tries awfully hard to put Rocky back in the position of hopeless underdog, something it never really achieves.
The early parts of RII are the most compelling. The movie starts with the conclusion of the prior film; again we see Rocky’s (Sylvester Stallone) near-victory against boxing champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). From there we find out where Rocky’s life goes as he deals with his newfound celebrity. Unfortunately, he quickly runs out of economic options, and since his injured right eye makes it risky for him to box - one wrong punch and he could go blind - it looks like Rocky’s back to being a bum, just like in the first film.
I enjoyed the brief look at Rocky’s flirtation with success, but once the movie puts him back in the position of underdog, it quickly sinks into a tepid series of clichés. Clearly writer/director Stallone - who would also helm the following two sequels before Rocky director John G. Avildsen returned for the fifth film - wanted badly to put Rocky back into the role of lovable loser, and the movie strains to do so. It never seems convincing, and no parts of the flick made it work.
Much of the problem stemmed from the superficial presentation of the main characters. The original film was really about all sorts of people who’d struggled through life and never been able to achieve their goals. Rocky himself just acted as the stand-in for anyone who’d felt less successful than they’d like to be. Except for champion Creed and his camp, all of the main participants bordered on the dregs of society, and the movie let them stand up for themselves and have their day on top.
Rocky II should have been better able to explore the nuances of these characters. The first movie introduced them, so the sequel should have been able to expand on their personalities. Instead, they’re all reduced to caricatures of their old selves, and no new dimensions are added. Rocky’s girl Adrian (Talia Shire) is nothing more than a token babe in the sequel, and her brother Paulie (Burt Young) simply redoes his loudmouth shtick from the first movie. Trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith) loses all humanity and becomes a gruff screamer with reason to exist other than to shout at Rocky.
As Rocky, Stallone at least kept within the stumblebum nature of the original character - a tone that would disappear beneath the actor’s vanity in the sequels - but otherwise the sequel’s star has little in common with the original character. Stallone keeps Rocky likeable - another dimension that would disappear in the later sequels - but he lacks the warmth and the charm that we saw in the first film. Instead, he feels like a cardboard impersonation of the old Rocky; I didn’t dislike him, but I didn’t really care about him either.
Virtually all of Rocky II seemed like a cheap knock-off of the original. They added superior production values and gave it a happier ending, but otherwise it’s the same old song and dance, just without equal levels of spirit and conviction. The climactic fight scene lasts longer than in the first film, but it appears less substantial, as the razzle-dazzle lacked grit and depth. In the original, the bout was a war, but here it’s just a show.
Add to that some plot twists that verge into soap opera territory and you have a less-than-successful sequel. Make no mistake - Rocky II isn’t a terrible movie. It offers some entertaining sequences, and it looks quite good when compared to some of the other sequels. However, on the heels of a movie as charming as Rocky, the first sequel is a big disappointment. Stallone wanted to have his cake and eat it too, and the result is a movie that can be interesting but that never becomes fulfilling.